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Salem Witch Trial At 103 Harriet Nothing More Than Smoke, Mirrors, And Strobes...Or, The Soft Moon Kill It And That Should Not Be Any Kind Of Controversy...

Death by fire or bad wordplay? Salem's Jack Donaghue by RLC
First off, let's dispel with the notion that Salem are "controversial". Piece after piece I've read about the mid-western electronic collective, creators of music that is known as much for the esoteric descriptors attached to it than, well, the music they create and perform, inevitably mentions the word controversy in some context. Because bloggers and music tastemakers are unable to pin down a sound with all the colorful adjectives at their disposal is not controversial. Nor is the problem of Salem being completely uneven live. The first points to a need to put things in nice little boxes or create "new" nice little boxes - remember "chillwave". Salem mix genres in a way that is either inventive, off-putting, or ridiculous, depending on what your threshold is for Goth-meets-Crunk-meets-Ambient-meets (insert recondite word of choosing). That said, the absence of unifying descriptor doesn't make for controversy, it makes for a lack of vision. The fact that so many bloggers and "tastemakers" are confounded by a band may feel "controversial" to them in an existential, "what is the meaning of Salem and why must I feel obliged to join the choir of finger-pointers in outing this wicked musical witch, that is intent on corrupting the good puritan journalism of easy contexting, that works so well with search engine optimizing." The second, and perhaps more dastardly hoax being portrayed on audiences is the live performance part of the Salem quotient.

Treated to fog on one of the few foggless nights in by RLC
Wednesday saw their delayed San Francisco debut at 103 Harriet, brought to us by the fine people over at Blasthaus Productions. Now, once and for all the "controversy" would be settled by people actually seeing the "controversial" band after two years of being force-fed a steady diet of "this is the best/worst thing to hit music since skiffle." Much has been made of them getting booed off stage at SXSW last year for, by all accounts, sucking. The "Giles Corey" (this is a reference worthy of Google-ing) of Salem is Jack Donoghue, the rapper/laptop-er/musical lighting rod of Salem. Let's end some controversy shall we, he's not a very good rapper and this is confusing to many people who see them. Rap by it's very nature is confrontational and for a band based more in the Goth tradition than any other, which traditionally likes to remain in the dark shadows of societies nether regions, this is incongruous. The sound Salem can generate on stage can be very impressive. Augmented by fog machines on TEN and strobe lights that go to ELEVEN, you have a nice aural/visual pairing. Then there's the rapping? One big factor that did not play well for Donoghue was the DJ's choice to play some classic Jay Z songs and mash-ups immediately before Salem hit the stage. It simply highlighted the lack of flow and linguistic creativity he brings to the "Crunkier" side of Salem's music. This was masked in production on their generally well-recieved album King Night, but live it serves as a jarring reminder that, "It's tricky to rock a rap that's right on time, it's tricky..."

Salem's Heather Marlatt makes the ultimate by RLC
The great sacrifice of this comes to bear on Salem member Heather Marlatt, who provides wonderfully tranceful vowels, in addition to synths. I say vowels because that was all I could make out above the rumbling din coming off the stage. To continue the metaphor, Marlatt is the "Elizabeth Proctor" of Salem. She of rich tone and mesmerizing understated presence, proudly and defiantly taking her stand on stage as the fog and clamor of the music rise up from her feet to eventually engulf her. It was these songs that featured Marlatt and upon re-examining Salem's album where the "oracular visions" and "stupendous witchcraft" emanate from. This is where the band coalesces around a vision that, while not as "controversial", is gratifying live. Enter the Donag-WU and we are back to the head-scratching and "controversy". Oh! And, there is a guy in the backline of musicians that wears a ski-mask. By midway through their set the room was beginning to thin and I assume that the HYPE had subsided into a fairly cut and dry decision of, "Yay or Nay" on Salem. As with another famous case associated with the word Salem, hysteria often leads to controversial applications of judgement. The music blogosphere in many respects has been heading down the same trajectory as early puritanical America. We loves us some witch hunts! The problem is there are very few ways, still, to verify a witch beyond paranoia, confusion, and blind faith in a higher power - read Pitchfork.

Style meet Substance. SF's The Soft Moon @ 103 by RLC
Another popular storyline in music is style over substance. In the case of San Francisco's, The Soft Moon, it is good to have both. Led by Luis Vasquez (also of SF's other substantial musical unit Lumerians), The Soft Moon are a fully realized extension of 80's and 90's industrial-dance-Goth demigods like Joy Division, Bauhaus, Ministry, and a splash of the Cure. This trio has been documented well in this blog here so I will be brief. They are a very entertaining and inspiring band live. Their album available below on Captured Tracks, is one of the best records to come out last year. Their sound conjures a scorched earth when viewed free floating away from your space shuttle, after having the line that tethered you to the ship release unexpectedly. It's both driving to a point and expanding infinitely at the same time. On one of the few truly fogless nights San Francisco has seen in months, the packed room was imported with fog and enough strobe lighting to induce a seizure. These stage effects go perfectly with a band that trades on mystery delivered with unexpected hooks. Songs like "Breathe the Fire" and "Circles" command that the audience move, lost in a  fever dream set to 130 bps. The 45 minute set was captured in pixels below and was highlighted by the albums centerpiece, and rarely played live, "When It's Over". This song is a direction I would love to see further explored in future recordings. It's got the cascading guitar of the more Gothic aspects of early Cure and is really a beautiful sonic artistic statement. Do yourself a favor and catch The Soft Moon, a sure bet to play Coachella next year and larger venues from here on out.
Luis Vasquez lost in by RLC
The Soft Moon bassist Justin Anastasi bringing the by RLC

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